Food & Drink

Skip the turkey sandwich. These Thanksgiving leftovers are anything but lame

Whip up a quick balsamic vinaigrette and you’re on your way to eating this Leafy salad with turkey, roasted potatoes and stuffing croutons for dinner.
Whip up a quick balsamic vinaigrette and you’re on your way to eating this Leafy salad with turkey, roasted potatoes and stuffing croutons for dinner. Special to the Star-Telegram

I am not a leftovers person.

Except on rare occasions, I will not reheat for lunch what I made for dinner the night before, because I’m on to something different.

Thanksgiving is a whole other story. It is the exception to my rule. It is the whole reason to do the days of cooking and planning and standing in grocery store checkout lines, flipping through the latest issue of People magazine.

Everyone talks about the meal on the big day, the fourth Thursday, the day of families and friends, the endless football, the turkey-induced coma. Whatever. Give me the day after, with a refrigerator stuffed with plastic containers of turkey, stuffing and/or dressing (both, if I’m lucky), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, all of it. I’ll be back in the kitchen, cooking with the leftovers.

Why? Because Thanksgiving leftovers aren’t your run-of-the-mill reheats. Each dish becomes its own ingredient, to be re-created and reimagined into something else. Turkey can work in so many things. Part of a soup or a casserole or a simple sandwich, right? But why not tear it up and put it in a quesadilla, with cranberry sauce and cheese? Or add the shredded turkey to a salad that also stars homemade stuffing as croutons?

One of my favorite ways to eat mashed potatoes growing up was on the rare occasions we had leftovers and my mom would turn them into pancakes. I remember thinking there was nothing better, not even the mashed potatoes themselves, and these mashed potato waffles, a slightly different take on the pancake, come close. Turkey spring rolls are fun to make, for whoever is still at home and not at the malls the next day. You’ll just need the wrappers and the noodles, both of which come to life with a kettle of hot water. The sauces take only a few minutes to whisk together.

There’s something playful about coming up with new ways to eat what you had the day before. I’ve never looked at dealing with Thanksgiving leftovers as a chore, a bunch of things that I have to figure out what to do with so it they don’t go to waste. On the contrary, I see them as parts of new possibilities, not yet discovered.

My Uncle Charles first taught me to play around with leftovers when he added curry powder to my mom’s turkey gravy the day after it was ladled over slices of turkey. It wasn’t so much the result as the creative spirit he demonstrated in making it. He opened Mom’s spice cabinet and began to improvise. He added and stirred and tasted, and I stood there right beside him, watching it all, tasting along with him, and taking it in. It wasn’t so much an improvement as a reimagining. It’s not yet Thanksgiving as I write this, but every time I do a leftovers story, I think of him and how that one simple event inspired me. For that, and for him, I’m truly thankful.  

Ellise Pierce is the author of “Cowgirls Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press). Read her blog (, and follow her on Twitter (@cowgirlchef) and Instagram (cowgirlchef). 

Turkey and cranberry sauce quesadillas

Makes 2 servings

2 large flour tortillas

1 cup shredded Monterrey jack or mozzarella cheese

1  1/2 cups shredded leftover turkey

2 heaping tablespoons leftover homemade cranberry sauce (see Note)

2 tablespoons butter

Cilantro, chopped, for serving

1. Build the quesadilla. Put one tortilla on a plate. Add cheese/turkey/cranberry sauce. Top with the other tortilla.

2. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the quesadilla and cook until browned on both sides, 5 to 10 minutes total. Slice on a cutting board and serve with chopped cilantro. 

Note: I used my recipe for Cranberry-pear jalapeño sauce, which gave this enough heat so I didn’t need to add salsa.

Cranberry-pear sauce with jalapeños

Makes about 2 cups

1 large or 2 small Anjou pears

1 (12-ounce) package fresh cranberries

Zest of 1 orange

 1/2 of 1 jalapeño, minced

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup sugar

1. Peel the pear or pears and remove the seeds and core. Slice into 1  1/2-inch pieces and put in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, along with the rest of the ingredients plus 1 cup of water.

2. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the cranberries have popped. Pour into a bowl to cool, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Note: This needs to be made at least 1 to 2 days in advance for the best flavor.

Turkey spring rolls

Makes 10 to 12

 1/2 (8.8 ounce) box rice noodles

1 cucumber

1 package spring roll wrappers

2 to 3 cups shredded leftover turkey

1 cup shredded carrots

1 cup grated purple cabbage

1 bunch cilantro

Nuoc cham, recipe follows

Peanut sauce, recipe follows

1. Put the rice noodles in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them sit for 4 minutes or until soft, then drain in a colander.

2. Peel and seed the cucumber and slice into thin matchsticks about 3 inches long.

3. Using the same bowl as you used for the noodles, pour boiling water into the bowl. Let it cool for 1 to 2 minutes.

4. Carefully submerge one of the spring roll wrappers into the water, then pull it out and put it on a plate. The spring roll wrapper will still be firm but will continue to soften as you do the assembling.

5. Put about  1/2 cup (maybe a little less; it’ll depend on the size of your wrappers) of the noodles in the center of the spring roll wrapper. Add: a few pieces of turkey/2 cucumber matchsticks/a few grated carrots/purple cabbage/a sprig or two of cilantro. To wrap, fold in the ends, then fold over the half closest to you, pulling it tight, then roll it up away from you. As you make these, put them on a plate. Slice in half before serving with Nuoc cham and Peanut sauces.

Nuoc cham dipping sauce

Makes about 1 cup

2 tablespoons sugar

 1/2 cup warm water

3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 of a Thai chile, finely chopped, or a jalapeño

This is really a recipe that you need to taste as you go. It’s a wonderful, bright sauce and I was surprised at how much tastier it was than some I’ve had at restaurants. Just whisk everything together and serve.

Peanut sauce

Makes about 1 cup

2 heaping tablespoons creamy or chunky peanut butter

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

A few tablespoons (2 to 3) water, to thin out the sauce

Mix all ingredients together.

Leafy green salad with turkey, potatoes and stuffing croutons

Makes 4 servings

2 cups leftover stuffing

1 head romaine (I used red leafy plus arugula and baby spinach, both leftovers)

Sea salt and pepper

2 cups shredded leftover turkey

1 pound roasted leftover potatoes (see Note)

Balsamic vinaigrette, recipe follows

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Break up the stuffing into small pieces and put on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, or until crisp, turning once.

3. Put the lettuce in a bowl, along with the shredded turkey, potatoes, and stuffing croutons. Add sea salt and pepper to taste. Pour some of the vinaigrette on top, toss, and serve — or serve the vinaigrette on the side.

Note: If you don’t have leftover potatoes, slice baby potatoes in half and roast in a 425-degree oven for 20 minutes or until browned. 

Balsamic vinaigrette

Makes  3/4 cup

 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon chopped shallot

Sea salt and pepper

3/4 cup olive oil

Put the balsamic vinegar, mustard, shallot, and a little sea salt and pepper in a jam jar. Give it a good shake, then let it rest for 15 minutes. Add the olive oil, shake again, and taste. Will keep in the fridge for a week.

Mashed potato waffles

Makes 12 small waffles

1/2 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

sea salt and pepper to taste

2 cups leftover mashed potatoes

6 green onions (white parts only), plus the green for serving

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Canola or grapeseed oil for the waffle iron

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Sour cream for serving

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and pepper if you need to add more (my potatoes were already well-seasoned so I didn’t add any).

2. Put the mashed potatoes, green onions, and eggs in a bowl and combine. Add the flour mixture and mix well.

3. Heat the oven to broil.

4. Lightly brush the waffle iron with canola or grapeseed oil. Heat the waffle iron to medium.

5. Put about one-third of the potato mixture onto your waffle iron, making sure not to spread it all the way to the edges because it’ll smoosh out when you put the top down. Know that I used a smallish waffle maker and size varies, so fill accordingly. Cook until browned and remove to a plate. Repeat with the rest of the mixture.

6. Put the waffles onto a baking sheet, add the cheese, and slide under the broiler for a minute or two or until the cheese melts. Serve with sour cream and sliced green onion tops.

Adapted from a recipe by Daniel Shumski, author of “Will it Waffle” (Workman Publishing)